Retirement Changes How Time Feels

Thursday

I concluded my British Fantasy course with Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time, which is helping me understand my own changing relationship with time now that I have retired. I can’t do full justice to Pratchett’s wild and wandering book in a single blog post (here’s a previous post), but I can explain how Pratchett’s general theme bears on my own changed life.

Pratchett plays with subjective dimensions of time, how time can seem to slow down or speed up depending on what one is doing. Because humans depend on a fair degree of regularity, Pratchett imagines Tibetan-like “monks of time,” who watch over time cylinders and shuttles to make sure that time is more or less evenly spaced out. Sometimes, when time threatens to spiral out of control, the monks dump time in places where it won’t do any damage (say, in prehistoric times) or borrow time from times where it won’t be noticed. The cylinders, incidentally, are called “Procrastinators,” after the passage from 18th century poet Edward Young’s  Night Thoughts that “procrastination is the thief of time.” Here’s an instance of the monks of time at work:

Lobsang ran his eye over the board again, and stared up at the rumbling cylinders, and then back to the lines of shutters.

There wasn’t anything written down about all this, Lu-Tze knew. You couldn’t teach it in a classroom, although they tried. A good spin driver learned it through the soles of his feet, for all the theory that they taught you these days. He’d learn to feel the flows, to see the rows of Procrastinators as wells or fountains of time. Old Shoblang had been so good that he’d been able to pull a couple of hours of wasted time off a classroom of bored pupils without them even noticing, and dump it into a busy workshop a thousand miles away as neat as you pleased.

Unfortunately for humankind, the universe has bureaucratic auditors who don’t take kindly to how humans, through their subjectivity and imagination, mess up time. As far as the auditors are concerned, humans represent a threat to the steady clicking of the universe’s clock, and they want human time to stop.

If that occurred, however, we would experience the apocalypse because all that makes us human (free will, human development, art) would end. A cosmic battle against the auditors is enjoined by a coalition of various forces connected with humans, including the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We don’t normally see death, war, famine and pestilence as our allies, but these figure realize they owe their very personification as horse riders to the human imagination and they don’t want that to end. In the end, the auditors are defeated, which means that humans can go back to wasting time, making the most of time, and all the other things that we do with time.

The major change in my own relationship with time is that,  in the past, if I wasn’t writing at this point in the summer, I knew I would regret it once August rolled around. Like many scholars, I would go into each summer with great ambitions—summer is the only really unbroken time that professors have—and I would invariably be disappointed that I didn’t accomplish all I wanted. Spending seven days organizing my mother’s library would have seemed like I was squandering time.

So I feel a strange  sense of inner conflict. Part of me is worried when I spend time “unproductively” and part of me feels deliciously liberated, and I don’t know how to reconcile the two. I’ve been told that I won’t really feel retired until classes begin in September, so we’ll see.

And then I wonder if, once September truly arrives, I will lose my current sense of urgency and, if so, whether this will be a good thing or a bad thing. Now that I don’t have to answer to anyone about productivity, will I be float free? Or will eventual incapacity or death stand in as my new September? I’ve been calling retirement “my permanent sabbatical,” but does that mean I will feel the need to present my sabbatical report to the grim reaper?

And if I no longer feel a sense of urgency, will I lose an important prod? There’s a haunting image in Ruth Rendell’s Solomon’s Carpet of a hunting falcon that has stopped flying, leading its owner to feed it less so that it will maintain its edge. The owner is tormented by its cries, however:

He worried about the bird’s weight, that if he did not fly he would gain weight and perhaps never fly again, so he restricted his food even further and Abelard screamed. Sometimes Jed thought he could see misery and despair in the hawk’s eyes, a desperate craving for food, as if there passed through his small, limited avian mind a knowledge that all there was in life for him was food and if he could not have it, or have enough of it, the stretching years ahead would be a slow, unrelieved torture.

How’s that for an image of retirement—“slow, unrelieved torture”? When Jed learns, however, that the bird is not dying but has a virus that prevents it ever from flying again, he is relieved. Now he can feed the bird all he wants, just as retirement can feed me with wasted time without my ever having to account for it.

This being a creepy Rendell novel, however, there’s a catch. By the end, Jed himself is going hungry so that he can feed his bird. With human beings, there is always some form of hunger, some form of compulsion, involved:

[N]ow he could keep Abelard in his room and feed him unrestrictedly. He could make the hawk happy. He could make the thing he loved endlessly happy. And it would be nearly endless, there was no reason why Abelard should not live twenty, thirty years. Close, side by side, day and night, they would live together in this room or some other like it somewhere, in companionable silence. The hawk would never fly again.

In a happiness that seemed to have come in the simplest and clearest possible way, jed sat watching the bird on its perch. He saw relishing his decision. After a long time, when Abelard opened an eye, Jed went to the cupboard and took out the meat he had intended for his own supper.

In other words, give me unrestrained time and I will find some discipline, not necessarily healthy, to constrain myself.

Constraint could involve filling up every moment with activity. Like Jed’s hawk, I feel that I’m supposed to fly again, and there has been almost no sitting around. Using Pratchett’s framework, I am pumping time into the Procrastinators, so if you, dear reader, have been wasting time, rest assured that I have you covered. Between us, the monks of time will have an easy time of it.

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